Exploring Out Islands, Bahamas
Published: May 2010
By Shane Mitchell
On this low-key island chain, T+L uncovers stylish hotels and guesthouses, the best places to eat conch, an almost-forgotten dialect, and a warm welcome that’s hard to come by anywhere else.
In the spring of 1968, my father ran his sailboat onto a coral reef in the Bahamas. After swimming to shore from the half-sunken wreck, he wound up spending several weeks on Cat Island, in the Out Islands. My father—a marine artist—passed the time ashore sketching scenes of Bahamian life. My mother heard the news back home in South Carolina from our small town’s gossipy postmaster, who had a habit of reading other people’s mail, especially intriguingly stamped postcards requesting a wire transfer of funds from a remote island. Needless to say, both men got a wicked tongue-lashing. That didn’t stop Dad from falling in love with this tiny dot in the ocean. For years after this high-seas adventure, he talked glowingly about the island’s empty beaches, certain illegal crops, and the gracious locals who owned a guesthouse where he stayed until the weekly mail boat fetched him back to Nassau. (This was long before the island had hotels or an airstrip.) And on that homeward voyage, tucked in his duffel bag for me, he had a shell-decorated straw hat with Bahamas stitched in pink on the brim.
The Out Islands. There’s something about the collective designation that implies an appealing remove from the mainland. Yet this Bahamian barrier chain is not far off the coast of Florida, starting at a latitude parallel with West Palm Beach and sweeping southeasterly. It wraps around the world’s third-largest reef system and a mile-deep abyss named Tongue of the Ocean. Beyond the capital of Nassau, on New Providence, with its casinos and gargantuan cruise-ship port, these low-lying coral islands and cays are sparsely populated by the steadfast descendants of English Puritans, African slaves, and Loyalist planters who moved from the Carolinas after winding up on the losing side of the American Revolution. (Had they not fought on the winning side, my own cotton-planting ancestors from Charleston might have landed here instead.) Even the lilting English spoken by some islanders is based on an antiquated dialect that has nearly disappeared from the Western Hemisphere.
Apart from 2,300-square-mile Andros, many of the Out Islands barely register on a GPS; historically, their size made them the ideal hideout for salty dogs on the shady side of the law, from the pirate Edward Teach to smugglers of “square grouper” (bales of marijuana) en route from South America to South Beach. But not all mariners were intent on illegal gains. Hemingway fished for marlin off Bimini; San Salvador was arguably the first landfall for the Niña, Pinta, and Santa María. And that most famous pirate of the Caribbean, actor Johnny Depp, now owns 45-acre Little Hall’s Pond Cay. My own semi-piratical parent was drawn here as well, by the mangrove-lined bonefish flats and potent rum punches. Recently, I followed his course around the islands he loved best, from tiny Staniel Cay, in the Exumas, to fishing villages in the Abacos and Eleuthera, and ultimately Cat Island, as a way to reconnect with a wayward man often absent from home on long voyages during my childhood. Although he always returned with beguiling souvenirs, like my Bahamian straw hat, to assuage the family he left behind on shore, it was never the same as getting to tag along. I intended to see for myself the places that he painted so evocatively, although I would stay in some of the Bahamas’ most charming guesthouses, inns, and hotels, rather than on a leaky boat.
Navigating between remoter parts of the Out Islands chain still requires travel by public ferry, mail boat, or fishing vessel with a captain willing to accept cash on the side when the marlin aren’t biting. Landing from Fort Lauderdale at the airstrip on Staniel Cay, I stand under the shade of the Cessna Grand Caravan’s wing as the Watermakers Air pilot unloads bales of iceberg lettuce from the hold. Eventually I’m met by Nikki Ferguson, who runs a gift shop near the Staniel Cay Yacht Club. “Hot enough?” she asks, as I climb aboard her two-seater golf cart. “It’s already a two-cup-of-ice day.” To prove her point, she steers with one manicured hand while holding two Styrofoam cups in the other, crunching on frozen slush as we bounce over a speed bump and around several salt ponds on the way to the hotel. Next to a dockside fish clean-and-grill station conveniently positioned where harmless reef sharks circle for scraps, this marina is the jumping-off point for exploring the northern half of the Exumas and, as the name implies, a favorite anchorage for mariners. She drops me at the Yacht Club and whizzes away after topping off her cups with more ice. Inside, an impressive collection of nautical memorabilia hangs from the rafters and palm-mat walls. Lifesavers, signal lamps, and teak stern plaques from passing boats called Sea Tramp and Floating Interest are interspersed with faded photographs of the film crew for Thunderball, the James Bond movie shot here in 1965. The nine pastel cottages at Staniel Cay Yacht Club are simple—queen bed; shower; wicker furniture—with covered decks on a conch shell–strewn shoreline. Each has a private dock where a small motorboat is tied for guests who want to seek out their own sandbars.
As the tide drops, I borrow one of Ferguson’s golf carts and traverse the Atlantic side of the cay, braking to let iridescent blue lizards scurry across the scorched asphalt paths. The next day, I order conch fritters for lunch in the hotel’s restaurant and pass the afternoon counting yacht flags (my father’s wind-tattered one still hangs there) until a boat comes to take me to Royal Plantation, on 50-acre Fowl Cay, less than two miles away through back channels. This island resort, with six expansive villas and two deserted beaches, is quite a departure from Staniel Cay. My one-bedroom cottage, Lindon House, has a stone patio with white rockers shaded by palmettos and an oversize kitchen where one of the staff cooks breakfast to order. It’s the sort of place I could easily spend day after day lazing in the rope hammock with a trashy novel or snorkeling between cays where starfish and sand dollars swim in water clear as glass.
The next morning I head to Harbour Island, off the northeastern tip of Eleuthera. Captain John “Ollie” McKenzie, a bonefishing guide from Baraterre, on Great Exuma, picks me up for a cruise south along the calmer southwestern side of the Exumas chain in his center-console boat. He roars across shallow flats that shift in hue from gin to indigo, past the secluded, five-bungalow, $37,500-a-night private island of Musha Cay (owned by magician David Copperfield) and Depp’s equally private lair. We talk about where to find the best peas-and-rice (at Charlie’s, in George Town, on Great Exuma), a favorite Bahamian accompaniment to fried-fish dinners. We dock at George Town, and I connect by small plane to Harbour Island. In sharp contrast to the raffish Exumas, this manicured enclave attracts a smartly dressed crowd that spends its time browsing through galleries and attending cocktail parties in rented villas. As I tote my bag for a quick walk along Bay Street from Government Dock, British designer India Hicks whizzes by on her golf cart. The lanes are shaded by mature fig and frangipani trees. White picket fences front gingerbread cottages painted baby pink and aquamarine. Cicadas rattle like castanets as the noonday heat rises. I check in to the Landing, a set of three colonial plantation–style town houses. Ceiling fans whirl on the front porches; a pool is tucked in a grove of palm trees out back. Mahogany antiques and four-poster beds dominate the small quarters that are decorated with vintage lithographs of the tropics. My second-floor room—named Poinciana—has French doors leading to a private balcony with white deck chairs positioned to catch the sunset. I quickly discover that social life in Dunmore Town centers around cocktail hour at the Landing’s elegant bar. The bartenders, T. J. and Honey, immediately steer me to the best backyard barbecue (Brian’s Takeout) and a grocery on Pitt Street that sells Miss Patricia’s locally bottled hot sauce.
After breakfast the next day, I putter up Gaol Street in my own golf cart to Pink Sand beach, a three-mile stretch of gentle surf, certainly one of the best in the Bahamas. Stopping for conch chili at Sip Sip, a bistro on the bluff above the Atlantic surf, I discover folk paintings by the late Bahamian artist Amos Ferguson on the walls. Next door, Pip Simmons’s Ocean View Club, a favorite hideaway of British milliner Philip Treacy, has a more extensive collection of Ferguson’s artwork. His Outsider-art portraits of Bahamian women chronicle daily rituals in the islands with a touch of humor. Over the next couple of days, I quickly fall into rituals of my own. I pass Fisherman’s Dock to see if T. J.’s sister at the Queen Conch stand has saved me a container of fresh conch marinated in lime juice; watch the same little girl yank porgies out of knee-deep water with a bare hook and hand line; browse posh lime-green beach tunics at India Hicks’s Sugar Mill boutique; surrender to the lime-curd tart at Arthur’s Bakery; and wind up back at the Landing in time to rinse pink sand off my toes before ordering chef Ken Gomes’s pan-fried grouper in the hotel’s paprika-hued restaurant.
My next stop is Marsh Harbour, on Great Abaco. A junior Junkanoo band makes a racket with cowbells, whistles, and drums on the porte cochère as I arrive at the Abaco Club at Winding Bay, a Ritz-Carlton Managed Club. In nominal ways, the Bahamian tradition of Junkanoo resembles Carnival (elaborate costumes; dance crews; parades), but was originally a celebration of freedom from slavery. This destination club (open to nonmembers) supports the local arts, so the children sing and proudly show off their sequin-and-satin outfits before I’m taken to an octagonal cabana. A bicycle parked outside my cream-and-coral bedroom is a welcome shift in transportation; I slowly pedal around the cove and wind up high on a sea bluff at the resort’s breeze-cooled Cliffhouse, where I sip a Goombay Smash, the Bahamian coconut-rum potion that was a particular favorite of my seafaring father.
Before his own boat sank, my dad sailed through the Bahamas while working on a series of lighthouse paintings. One of his favorites was the red-and-white candy-striped tower at Hope Town, on nearby Elbow Cay. Erected in 1863 despite protests by Abaco’s islanders, it put an abrupt end to a lucrative cottage industry of salvaging ships “accidentally” wrecked on the offshore reefs. So the next day, I commandeer the club’s catamaran and its captain, “Fun” Bob Russell, to cruise past a snorkeling point off Tilloo National Park and cut back on the throttle at the entrance to Hope Town’s harbor. The lighthouse looks freshly painted. We tie up at the post office’s dock, and I skip the arduous climb up a 101-step spiral staircase to see the Fresnel lens and decide instead to hunt for hand-painted postcards. This settlement has quirky clapboard cottages lining a bicycle-only lane known as Queen’s Highway. If not for the coconut palms, Hope Town might easily be found on Cape Hatteras or the North Fork of Long Island. But walking into Sweetings Grocery, I’m reminded that the mainland is worlds away by a notice tacked next to the register: If you’re looking for Walmart, it’s 200 miles to the right.
As the sole passenger riding the public ferry the next day between Marsh Harbour and Green Turtle Cay, I stand in the wheelhouse next to Captain Nigel Lowe, who has the leathery grin of a man steeped too long in salt water. “Nassau is the big city,” he says. “This is the real Bahamas out here.” Lowe’s ancestors emigrated from the Carolinas in the 18th century, and we banter about the divergent history of our families. His were shipwrights and privateers on this isolated archipelago, while mine scraped out an existence as vegetable farmers in the Sea Islands south of Charleston, South Carolina. However, Lowe doesn’t strike me as a man unhappy with his lot. He whistles while maneuvering the launch into a slip and then radios his wife to let her know he’ll be home soon for lunch. Lowe suggests I pick up a copy of Wind From the Carolinas, the Bahamian version of Gone With the Wind. But the true connection between the two places doesn’t sink in until I finally land on Cat Island.
I wait for a taxi in Arthur’s Town, where I overhear two men talking about fishing behind me. “I’m going out at day clean,” says one voice. “What about you?” That’s when I turn around and look closely at these elderly islanders. Gullah is a singsong dialect once spoken along the Carolina coast, and yet here was someone far out in the Atlantic using an expression for sunrise that almost no one remembers back home. They laugh when I tell them so and then they teach me that the phrase for night is “black crow.” This is far better than buried treasure, supposedly left on the four-mile-wide island by an obscure buccaneer named Arthur Catt. It explains to a certain extent why my father, who spent his childhood in South Carolina, felt so attached to this place. I pass the afternoon searching for women who weave straw, mostly to hear more of this rare dialect. At age 83, Ella Larrimore Thurston still turns dried soursop-palm fronds into hats adorned with curlicues and bows. Standing in the doorway of her small blue house by the paved main road, she recites poetry in Gullah for me. Emily Rolle, who has a straw stall in town, plaits “stingy brim” sisal hats and makes potions for gentlemen needing extra encouragement in the romance department. She gives me a coconut cookie and a straw change purse with Bahamas stitched on it.
By the end of the day, I’m ready to cool off with a swim at Bennett’s Harbour, where Samuel Thurston has built a guesthouse in the dunes. Sammy T’s, as he calls his modest inn, has seven clapboard bungalows around a main lodge with a dining room that serves conch stew and grilled lobster. In this westward cove, punctuated by two coral points, the clear ocean water ripples as schools of silver “little jack” fish leap in the air. Still damp, I walk back onto Thurston’s porch, where he hands me a bottle of Kalik beer, and the two of us watch an old tramp steamer slowly chug around the point to disappear over the horizon. It looks familiar. Suddenly, I remember one of my father’s best sketches of Cat Island, drawn decades earlier. “I’ve seen that rusty bucket before,” I say. Thurston replies, “That thing? It’s our mail boat.”
Shane Mitchell is Travel + Leisure’s special correspondent.
When to Go
June, July, and early August are the best months for empty beaches and low rates, but temperatures at that time of year can reach the nineties.
Getting There and Around
JetBlue flies daily from JFK to Nassau. Watermakers Air (watermakersair.com) connects to Staniel Cay from Fort Lauderdale. Cat Island Air (flycatislandair.com) connects from Nassau. Mail boats (242/322-8185; bahamasferries.com) can ferry passengers around many of the Out Islands.
Abaco Club at Winding Bay, a Ritz-Carlton Managed Club Marsh Harbour, Great Abaco; 866/228-9290; ritzcarlton.com; doubles from $699.
Arthur’s Bakery Dunmore St., Harbour Island; 242/333-2285; breakfast for two $14.
Brian’s Takeout Dunmore St., Harbour Island; no phone; dinner for two $20.
Charlie’s George Town, Great Exuma; 242/336-2107; dinner for two $25.
Pete’s Pub & Gallery Little Harbour, Great Abaco; 242/577-5487; dinner for two $70.
Queen Conch Bay St., Harbour Island; no phone; lunch for two $20.
Sip Sip Court St., Harbour Island; 242/333-3316; lunch for two $50.
Stubbs’s Roadside Bar Orange Creek, Cat Island; 242/354-4165; drinks for two $10.
Bamboo-Bamboo Dunmore St., Harbour Island; 242/333-3690.
Princess Street Gallery Princess St., Harbour Island; 242/333-2788.
Sugar Mill Trading Co. Bay St., Harbour Island; 242/333-3558.